British told to go as military in Venezuela is urged to act

By Leonard Doyle,Foreign Editor
Sunday 22 December 2002 01:00

The standoff between Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and the opposition, which has been trying to topple him with a punishing, 20-day national strike, is becoming more dangerous.

Yesterday the British government advised nationals to leave the country because of the worsening unrest and the risk of violence. Families of British diplomats and other non-essential staff are also being withdrawn. The United States, Canada and Germany have taken similar decisions.

After weeks of a paralysing oil strike and massive demonstrations which have so far failed to dislodge Mr Chavez, opposition leaders have started offering bribes to military officers to intervene. One high-ranking general claimed at the weekend to have been offered "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to end the crisis.

Venezuela's opposition and state television stations are also waging a vicious propaganda war to win the hearts and minds of millions.

For months Venezuela has been plagued by strikes, massive protests and occasional outbursts of violence between supporters and opponents of Mr Chavez.

More than 60 people were killed when rebel military officers briefly toppled the President in a short-lived coup in April, and the atmosphere in Caracas, the capital, has remained tense.

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets on Friday, calling on Mr Chavez to resign and defying a Supreme Court order to resume vital oil operations paralysed by a strike.

There is a growing threat of violence as food and petrol shortages bite and a British Foreign Office spokesman said yesterday: "This is likely to impact on critical supplies of essential commodities in coming days and might in turn trigger disturbances."

But despite the offers of payments there seems signs that the military is ready to rise up and overthrow the president. Mr Chavez, a former paratrooper who led a failed coup himself in 1992, before climbing back to respectability, has spent the past six months placing supporters in key jobs throughout the armed forces and so consolidated his grip on power in a nation where the military are usually the ultimate authority.

The armed forces have stayed out of the protest so far, except for the national guard, which has used tear gas to break up demonstrations and sent troops to guard petrol stations and oil facilities.

Only five military officers have abandoned their position since the strike began, joining more than 120 other officers protesting in Caracas.

The armed forces' commander, General Julio Garcia, has condemned the oil strikers, saying: "There are now in operation acts against the constitution, democracy and the order of the state." The defence minister and General Garcia have both broadcast statements declaring that the military supports a peaceful solution.

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